Yes, you read that right. A study done on rats showed that 94% of the cocaine-addicted animals preferred sugar to cocaine when given the choice. Sugar addiction is an epidemic in our culture. Not only it is legal (I’m not saying sugar should be illegal), but its consumption is widely encouraged by the food & health industries.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. I am a scientist. Nothing written here is a professional diagnosis or professional advice by any means. My purpose here is to tell my story, report some science, share what has worked for me personally, and hope to relate to another homegirl. If you realize that you’ve got some serious issues, call your doctor or another medical professional.
How The Body Processes Sugar
Sugar intake is connected to the brain and the digestive system. Both of these, the nervous and digestive system, contribute to sugar addiction.
When you eat sugar, the brain lights up with reward pathway activation. You get a rush of dopamine. After several rounds of this, you become desensitized to the sugar intake and need more to get the same rush (just like hard, illegal drugs). Like I mentioned above, sugar is 8x more addictive than cocaine.
Sugar is immediately processed by the liver. In order to handle the activity spike, the pancreas jumps in to help by releasing insulin. Insulin converts sugar into fat. Then you get fat.
But sugar impacts other aspects of health, too. High sugar intake can result in depression, mood swings, anxiety, cravings, and irritability.
Sugar is poison. It is a chronic, dose-dependent hepatotoxin.
-Dr. Robert Lustig on Fed Up
The consequences can include everything from cardiovascular disease to leaky gut. As Dr. Lustig put it so eloquently in the documentary Fed Up, “Sugar is poison. It is a chronic – not acute – chronic, dose-dependent hepato(liver)toxin.” Sugar is also implicated in the type 2 diabetes epidemic. For more on this, (I’ll say it again and again until you watch it!) watch the documentary Fed Up. It will blow your mind and shake your entire view on food and in the industry.
The WHO Recommendations
They suggest 6 tsp per day for women and 9 tsp per day for men. Less than 10% of your total calorie intake should come from sugar.
Note that 4 g of sugar = 1 tsp. The average person consumes 22 tsp of sugar per day! That’s 88 g of sugar.
Sugar & The Government: How Current Dietary Recommendations Came to Be
If you’ve seen the documentary Fed Up with Dr. Mark Hyman, then you’ve seen these connections outlined before. I want to sum up the 90 minute movie into a simple flow chart you can follow. If you want more details, I highly recommend watching Fed Up and following the research they present.
The Low-Fat Craze
Over 50 years ago, the sugar industry pushed Harvard scientists to blame fat for obesity.
The new story pushed by the US government and scientists funded by the big food companies said: calories in = calories out and exercise more. That was the new weight loss plan.
If you haven’t noticed, over the last 30 years, calories in = calories out and “just exercise more” hasn’t been working. Money spend on gyms and diet plans is skyrocketing. And yet waistlines are still growing. Health epidemics aren’t getting better. And our collective sugar addiction is intensifying.
You can’t exercise your way out of a bad diet. – Dr. Hyman
So now we’re supposed to be eating low-fat and not worrying about sugar. The problem with low-fat foods is that they taste like crap. Companies had to add sugar to make low-fat foods taste good.
A Conflict of Interest
Also, now all the new low-fat products on the market left manufacturers with fat that they didn’t want to waste. What can you do with fat? Make cheese.
A push to sell cheese started as a result of the low-fat products push. The government was left with a conflict: public health vs promoting agriculture. The corn industry (who supplies lots of sugar), the dairy industry (low-fat and cheese products), the wheat industry (a staple of processed foods), and the other big companies want to make boatloads of money from selling low-fat, high-sugar products. The government partners with these companies for the $$$, but they’re also supposed to be looking out for the interests of the public. They can’t have it both ways.
Soda is the cigarettes of the 21st century. – Fed Up
Something I’d like to note as a result of the US burying the WHO recommendation here is that the daily recommendation of sugar isn’t on nutrition labels. Have you ever noticed that? There’s a list of percentages for recommended intakes of fat, fiber, and vitamins. But there’s no percentage listed for sugar. It’s left to the consumer to know and self-moderate. The crazy part is that many single-servings of these products include more than the daily recommended dose of sugar. Keep in mind that 24 g is 6 tsp of sugar, the max a woman should be eating per day.
*It might be worth noting here that this isn’t the first time the government has looked the other way in exchange for some industry $$$.
The good news for you is that by eating real food and cutting out processed foods, you don’t have to worry about reading food labels anyway. And with a little time, you can beat your sugar addiction.
A Rose by Any Other Name
Sugar can hide in your food with a long list of names. Here’s a non-exhaustive list from Dr. Axe:
- Anhydrous dextrose
- Brown sugar
- Confectioner’s powdered sugar
- Corn syrup
- Corn syrup solids
- High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- Invert sugar
- Malt syrup
- Nectars (for example, peach or pear nectar)
- Pancake syrup
- Raw sugar
- White granulated sugar
Don’t get confused. Sugar from fruits or vegetables is healthy and necessary for good health. And there are several natural sweeteners that can be used in moderation with no negative health effects. Honey, dates, maple syrup, coconut sugar, and molasses are just a few examples. Sugar addiction will be tough to beat, and sometimes it’s an ongoing battle. However, you can beat it and heal. As Dr. Hyman says, you are much closer to health than you think you are.
Beating the Addiction
How you overcome a sugar addiction can be different from person to person. Some people prefer to wean off day by day and change the types of sugar intake slowly. I did a hard detox (and I’ve had to do it a couple of times since then) when I started changing my diet. A hard detox involves cutting out all sources of sugar including soda, sweet tea (for those of us in the South), candy, desserts, processed breads, coffee drinks besides black coffee, and anything with a high amount of sugar.
In my experience, I had severe addiction-like withdrawal symptoms including intense cravings, headaches, foggy brain, and irritability. For me, it passed in about 2 weeks of strict, no-cheating adherence. Actually, I used the withdrawal symptoms as motivation. It kinda freaked me out that I was having this kind of reaction to not eating sugar. I don’t like the idea of being dependent on a substance.
But let me tell you, kicking the cravings is totally worth it! Just by kicking sugar in your diet, you can see weight loss and incredible mental boosts.
Really ready to quit? Here are 5 steps to finally quit sugar for good.
Forces For Good
If you’d like more resources about sugar addiction and getting healthy, I recommend looking into these industry experts:
Jamie Oliver: An amazing chef with a tv show called Food Revolution. It only ran for a short period of time because the *powers that be* pulled the plug, but he gets his point across nonetheless. Jamie goes into schools throughout the US exposing unhealthy lunches and tackling the child obesity epidemic.
Dr. Hyman: One of the driving forces behind Fed Up, author of many excellent books, the medical director of the UltraWellness Center, and the Board President of Clinical Affiars of the Institute for Functional Medicine. If you’re interested, I would recommend checking out this interview for starters.
Dr. Axe: I’ve talked a lot about Dr. Axe on this blog so far. He’s also written books and has an extensive blog about health and wellness with a natural, sustainable approach.
For more on government food regulation, check out my article about food additive regulations.
Drop me a line in the comments below: Have you struggled with sugar addiction? Have you seen Fed Up? If so, what was your biggest takeaway?